CHICAGO – The Detroit Red Wings left the Blackhawks on the brink of elimination.
Four hundred miles away, the Minnesota Wild helped return the Hawks to solid ground.
The Hawks sneaked into the playoffs Sunday in one of the strangest season finales in recent memory. They clinched the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference despite a 4-3 loss to the Wings because the Wild knocked off the Dallas Stars, 5-3, about five hours later.
A win by the Stars would have ended the Hawks’ season.
“I think my phone is just about ready to die here,” Hawks forward Patrick Sharp told the NHL Network shortly after the Wild’s improbable win. “I was texting all of my teammates and living and dying with every play. We’re really thankful that we’re going [to the playoffs].”
Instead of heading home, the Hawks will head north to face the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks. The teams will kick off a best-of-seven series at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
The Hawks, who went 2-2-0 this season against the Canucks, are no strangers to playoff hockey in Rogers Arena. They knocked the Canucks out of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and to create one of the league’s newest and nastiest rivalries.
“Certainly, we got lucky,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said Sunday night after his team qualified for the postseason. “The thing is, let’s take advantage of getting lucky.”
For a while, it didn’t look as if the Hawks would get another crack at Vancouver.
The Hawks could have finished as high as the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference with a win against the Wings, but they stumbled in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 22,046 fans.
In a scene that was far too familiar this season, the Hawks grabbed a lead only to let it slip away. Wings forwards Tomas Holmstrom and Pavel Datsyuk scored on back-to-back shots in the second period to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead and to stun a packed crowd.
At 1:56 of the third period, the Wings extended their lead to 3-1. Wings forward Drew Miller punched the puck across the goal line after the Hawks lost a battle near the boards.
Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said it was tough to explain the game’s momentum swings.
“I thought we had control of the game,” Keith said. “We had a good first period and were up, 1-0. It was just some broken plays. We can’t make those.”
The Hawks assumed the Stars would beat the Wild, who were eliminated from playoff contention weeks ago. That belief added intensity to what already was a tense finish at the United Center in which both teams traded goals in the third period.
Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook trimmed the Wings’ lead to 3-2 at the 4:07 mark of the third, but Wings forward Dan Cleary responded with a goal almost four minutes later.
A goal by Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith with 8:38 remaining sliced the Wings’ lead to 4-3.
The Hawks had several quality chances to tie the score, especially during a two-minute power play with 2:58 remaining.
Ultimately, Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard withstood the final fury.
“We didn’t do our job,” Hawks winger Patrick Kane said. “That’s what it came down to.”
The Hawks’ heartbreak turned to hope when the Wild scored a go-ahead goal against the Stars with 13:13 remaining. Hope gave way to relief as the Wild held on for a one-goal win.
Next will come the homework. The Canucks led the NHL with 54 wins and 117 points this season.
Quenneville said he expected a jubilant group of Hawks when they gathered today for a flight to Vancouver. His goal was to channel that excitement into momentum on the ice.
“Anything can happen this year,” Quenneville said. “Everybody’s close. All the teams are basically comparably even. Let’s go find out.”